Printer Friendly

"Shut up shuttin' up!".

I don't recall which scowling rabbi scowled me this, but I'm fairly certain he was scowling (most of them were): Before being born, every man, woman and child is allotted a certain number of words to use in their lifetime, a number chosen by God in His great Wisdom before the soul is dispatched from the firmament above to the earth below. Every yes and no and please and thank you counts.


I don't know if contractions count for two.

I suspect swear words count double.

But no matter how you spend those words, the rabbis scowled--whether by speaking, singing, praising or wailing--when that number is up, Buddy, so is yours.

Rocky, the pocket-sized gangster from Looney Tunes, put it more honestly when he jammed his pistol into Bugs Bunny's mouth and growled, "Shut up shuttin' up."

In his defense, Yahweh isn't the only-fascist to be threatened by words, and his goons aren't the only ones to threaten those who speak up; if you believe the whole ex nihilo thing, he can, however, lay claim to being the first.


I wasn't thinking about this sinister lexical accounting system when I first read Stanley Elkin's The Living End. Stanley Elkin was one of the last century's finest, wildest, funniest, most inventive writers, which is why so few people recognize his name today. Probably should have written more about boy wizards, then. The Living End was published in 1979, but I didn't discover it, or him, until, he died in 1995. I was trying to work up the courage to write my own stories at the time, and the what of Elkin's story was more immediately impressive to me than the how; I'd had a similar response to Beckett and Kafka: "You can do this?" I wondered. "This is allowed?"

The story, in brief, is three brief stories: In the first, a good man named Ellerbee is unfairly condemned to eternal damnation. In the second, one of Ellerbee's assailants, a man named Ladlehaus, is accidentally eternally banished not to Hell but to a burial plot near a St. Louis high school sports stadium. In the third, the groundskeeper who tends to Ladlehaus' plot is also accidentally killed and damned. In the end, there is The End--God, tired of "never finding his audience," calls The Whole Thing off. It's hilarious and angry and sad and insane.

You can do this?

This is allowed?

So I read it again, and again after that, and when the plot cleared, when the story passed, there was something else. Something more dangerous, and, to me, sitting at my writing desk with Yahweh's pistol in my mouth, more inspiring.

"Shut up shuttin' up," I thought.

People discussing Elkin's work tend to focus on the way he verbed nouns and nouned verbs and piled description on top of description, and went off, as William Gass put it, on jazz-like riffs. For me, though, more than the beauty of the individual raindrops was the audacity of the storm.

Stan wasn't keeping count. Maybe nobody ever told him about God's word count, I wondered. Maybe I should let him know. Because if he keeps talking like this, I thought, he's going to run out of words real soon.

Stanley Elkin would not shut up, not for God, not for man, not for the MS that eventually claimed his life. Because the voice is all we have. To cry out, to bitch, to laugh, to grab the mic and say that we're here, and this is what it was like to be here, and some of it was good but a lot of it was bad, and we're not getting off the stage until we've had our say.

I re-read The Living End every couple of years. I re-read it when I'm feeling fearful, when I'm thinking about stupidity like Importance and Literature and Should I Say This and Can I Say That, and there is Stanley, going off--because going off is the point. Because raindrops are pretty, but run for cover, Oh Lord, because here comes the flood.

I have a five-year-old son, and the summer is here, and because I feel guilty about spending too much time writing and not enough time being a father, I buy him all sorts of summer toys; a kiddie pool, a sprinkler, a Slip 'N Slide. They're okay, but his favorite game is this: You uncoil the garden hose, turn the water on full blast--and it has to be full blast--and let the end flip and flop and dance around, never knowing where it might go, laughing and screaming and getting soaked as the hose twists and rolls and ties itself in knots. That's the whole game. And it's awesome. There's only one rule: full blast.

We don't have a name for it. I'm going to start calling it "the Elkin." Sure, it's two extra words off my lifetime allotment. But who's counting?
COPYRIGHT 2010 Moment Magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Auslander, Shalom
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Previous Article:Matt Rees & his Palestinian detective.
Next Article:Moment crossword puzzle.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters